Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On Cool Excitability

There are many people who call themselves 'sports nuts' whose idea of sport is to settle down upon their gluteus maximus with a bag of chips and a six of beer at their elbow. Although don’t get me wrong, engaging in these ‘7-course dinners’ on occasion can be fun….

But I’m the type of sports nut that loves to go out and play sports. I love the competition and the camaraderie, and I find nothing more rewarding than the lactic acid buzz experienced after an especially grueling match.

My thing is racket sports. Obviously, I love squash, but I also love tennis, and I’ve also found a good deal of enjoyment playing paddle tennis, court tennis, table tennis and even racquetball. I’ve won tournaments in tennis, racquetball, and squash: If there’s a racket involved, count me in.

Over the years one of the things I have come to find fascinating is the psychology of sport, and how one day you can walk out on the court and be perfectly ‘in the zone,’ feeling that your fitness level is fantastic and you seemingly have extra time with which to hit your shots. Other days, you are frantically careening around the court, unable to find a groove and forced to play defensively and frantically.

I’ve been there, believe me. So I was interested recently to read a sports psychologist who delineated the two aspects of sport without which success at an elite level is highly unlikely. The psychologist wrote that two seemingly contradictory qualities are often found in the very best athletes:
• an unusual ability to hyper-focus on what is going on in the game, and
• an unusually low level of excitability over the vicissitudes of the game itself.

The hyper-focus is expressed by the proprioception with which world-class athletes are blessed, in which they keep intimate track of not only their body as it moves through space but also their opponent’s body, the ball, how the ball is spinning, how their legs will be positioned in 8 steps when they predict they will have reached the ball, and whether they can maneuver their body in such a way that they can deceive their opponent into thinking they are hitting a particular shot that they in fact have no intention of hitting. This proprioceptive ability is congenital, to a degree, but that is not to say that they haven’t worked on it over the years.

But the more amazing feature of top athletes is their low excitability. You don’t see Federer throwing his racket when he flubs a shot or, before him, Bjorn Borg, the Swedish tennis great. And likewise you didn't see the great Peter Nicol, world #1 in squash for so many years, express anything other than the conviction that he had played his best, and if he didn’t win, well, next time would be different. There’s a compelling confidence that exudes from these top athletes, but there’s also a demeanor that expresses itself by low excitability.

There are of course exceptions to the above observation—need I remind anyone of the perfectly deplorable McEnroe? But these exceptions are rare. You would think that being highly focused in a sporting contest would almost necessitate a high degree of excitability, as it is occasionally in my case. I’ve been known to yell anguished cries, hurl my racket in either despair or glee, and do my very own ‘braggadocio walk,’ which I do to psych out my opponents when I’ve hit an improbable winner—it looks a little like Mussolini strutting around waving a racket. (This is, by design, highly obnoxious.) But most of the time I remain calm, at least outwardly, despite the occasional inner-directed firestorm of accusations I must quietly endure.

I think that the twin goals of remaining acutely focused and blessedly calm or worth striving for, both on the court and off, at work and at home with your family. So be cool, people.

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